rocket

AUG. 12, 1941: America’s first rocket program lifts off, in a single-engine Ercoupe plane outfitted with rocket motors developed by Jack Parsons and the infamous “Suicide Squad.” Parsons, Ed Forman, and mechanic Fred Miller worked through the night to fresh-pack the motors for this flight after Parsons discovered that they tended to explode after curing too long.

When I was 12, I was vice president of the Chester Virginia Rocketry Society — no great political achievement, as we had all of four members, but the point is, I lived and breathed rocketry. Almost literally. The smell of spent motor casings still triggers Proustian memory, taking me back to farm fields and car batteries sparking Estes motors to life, lofting our latest affront to gravity and aerodynamics into October skies.

All sorts of relevant facts, figures, and historical personalities. And yet, I never bumped into one of the men chiefly responsible for solid-motor rockets. His name was John Whiteside Parsons, but he went by Jack.

Apparently I’m not alone in my ignorance.

I took a straw poll of friends and colleagues, and only a few had ever heard of Jack Parsons. Fewer still knew more than “he had something to do with the JPL.”

Anyone who knew anything seemed to get it from a recent biography, George Pendle’s Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (see MAKE, Volume 04, page 177), which is how my ignorance of this space pioneer was finally cured. Turns out it’s the “strange” part of this man’s life equation that has fouled his scientific legacy.

Marvel Whiteside Parsons, later mercifully renamed John, was born Oct. 2, 1914, in Los Angeles. His parents had recently moved to California to pursue their dreams. When the marriage went south, Jack and his mother moved north, into his well-to-do grandparents’ Italian-style villa in Pasadena. Jack enjoyed a charmed childhood, with all the trappings of wealth. Busch Gardens was behind his house, and close by was the Arroyo Seco, a natural playground of rock canyons and chaparral-covered slopes, a fantasyland right out of the Old West. As Pendle points out in Strange Angel, growing up in these sheltered environs, it’s no surprise that Jack’s imagination developed unconstrained by reality. This freedom to dream was only magnified when, at 12, Parsons discovered Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, and, through its pulp sci-fi pages, an intense desire to reach the stars.

Gaga over Rockets

Parsons began trying to build his own rockets, first deconstructing black powder fireworks to pack his own motors. When he reached junior high and found that others didn’t share his bookish or geeky interests, things looked grim, until he met Edward Forman, an older student who would become Jack’s lifelong friend and fellow rocket pioneer.

Ed Forman was not of Jack’s social class. He came from a Missouri farm family who had recently moved to California. The family ended up homeless for a time, living in the Arroyo Seco, until they found a place. The two boys discovered they shared many things. Both suffered from dyslexia, both read science fiction, and both were gaga over rockets. Soon they embarked on a two-man space race, egging each other on with bigger and bolder rockets.

As the boys grew from teens into young men, they continued to raise the stakes on their rocketry experiments. Parsons went to college for a time, while Forman went to work as a machinist. To try and save enough money to continue college, Parsons got a job working at an explosives factory. Here he discovered an uncanny affinity for chemistry, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of chemicals and chemical theory. Parsons and Forman combined their growing expertise to push the envelope even further.

But they soon discovered that, to go any further, they’d need to test the thrusts generated by different fuel mixtures. They didn’t have the equipment or the math skills. It was this need for new collaborators that brought them, in 1935, to the doorstep of the California Institute of Technology. There they met Frank Malina, a graduate student also keen on space.

With the chemist Parsons, the machinist Forman, and the mathematician Malina in place, and the resources of Caltech at hand, they were poised for something big. But storming beachheads to the heavens didn’t come easily.

While they managed to get the attention and enthusiastic blessings of world-renowned aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, director of Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT) — no small feat for two young men without degrees — there was no funding. Supported solely by after-hours Caltech resources, junkyard scores, and their own money, they began years of intense, often harrowing, testing of various solid and liquid fuel mixtures.

Rocketeers Running for Their Lives

The group, dubbed the GALCIT Rocket Research Group, undertook its first serious test, of a gas-eous oxygen and methanol motor, on Oct. 31, 1936. Fittingly, they set up the test in the Arroyo Seco. The first test didn’t go well (picture the cartoonish image of rocketeers running for their lives, “chased” by a flailing hose of ignited oxygen), but they learned a few things. A photo was taken that day, of the group relaxing before the fireworks. This frozen moment is now considered by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which these men would soon found, as its “nativity” scene.

The team would continue testing through 1936 and into ’37. Given their raucous tests in the Arroyo Seco, and what von Kármán referred to as the “unnerving explosions of Parsons’ rockets” resonating through the campus, the group was given a nickname: the Suicide Squad. Then, in 1938, Uncle Sam paid a visit to von Kármán.

The Army Air Corps had taken an interest in GALCIT’s rockets. Specifically, they were interested in using rocket motors to assist heavy bombers taking off from island runways in the Pacific. The Suicide Squad had a job, and a budget, first $1,000, then $10,000. Back they went to Arroyo Seco, this time leasing land from the City of Pasadena (where JPL stands today). Where the group had previously focused on liquid fuels, they now began to seek suitable solid-fuel concoctions that were up to their task. Parsons, the brilliant chemist, set to work.

By 1941, rocket history was about to be made. No one had yet figured out how to achieve a controlled, directed burn of a solid-fuel rocket, one long enough and powerful enough to do something like helping lift an airplane. How could you pack fuel into a motor casing seamlessly enough to form a gas-tight seal so that combustion wouldn’t occur through fissures or between the fuel and casing?

Parsons tried many materials, eventually coming up with something he called GALCIT 27 (the 27th formulation), nicknamed “the Goop.” As Pendle jokes in Strange Angel, the ingredients read like the contents of a schoolboy’s desk: amide black powder, cornstarch, ammonium nitrate, and stationery glue, with blotting paper used as the bond between the fuel and the 1′-long steel casing. The Goop was packed into the casing in 1″ increments to maximize material density. Static tests showed they could get a controlled burn of 28lbs of thrust for 12 seconds. It was time to strap their motors onto a plane to see what would happen.

On Aug. 6, 1941, the Squad showed up at March Air Force Base with a truckload of motors that Parsons had struggled to keep from exploding in the back as they bounded down bumpy dirt roads. Static tests with rockets bolted to a single-engine Ercoupe airplane worked perfectly, but an in-flight test ended in one of the motors exploding. When the group reconvened two days later, both ground and air tests ended in explosions.

Finally, Parsons figured out that as the motors “cured,” fissures formed, and the fuel pulled away from the case, allowing combustion to race through the fuel, expanding, turning motors into bombs.

The motors would need to be freshly packed. His breakthrough came just in time. The scheduled rocket-powered takeoff was on Aug. 12. With military brass, Caltech students, and others looking on, the tests were a roaring success. A normal 580′ takeoff in 13.1 seconds was reduced to 300′ in 7.5 seconds. America’s first rocket program, the Jet-Assisted Take-Off (or JATO), was underway.

Fading from History

This moment in aerospace history, too, was encoded in a photo. It also perhaps represents the moment Jack Parsons begins fading from history. The image, found in history books and on the website of Aerojet Corporation (the aerospace firm the Squad also founded), shows the team standing around a plane wing, von Kármán in the center, writing equations for the camera. Parsons is there, but for some reason, he’s been cropped from the shot. Only the tip of his nose is visible. It’s unclear whether this was intentional or not, but it is emblematic of the historical cropping to come.

Parsons would go on to make other important advances in rocketry, the most fundamental of which was castable case-bonded solid fuels, first using asphalt (as both binder and fuel) and potassium perchlorate (as oxidizer). This technology is still in use today, in the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs). The science of rocketry owes a great debt to Marvel John “Jack” Whiteside Parsons. So why the cold shoulder?

When Parsons wasn’t trying to reach the stars in a rocket ship, he was charting a far different course, using the ancient “technologies” of the occult magician. Parsons was a follower of the notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley, aka “The Beast.” Parsons was even seen by Crowley, for a time, as his protégé, the person who’d birth Crowley’s new religion, Thelema, in the United States. To this end, Parsons ran the Agape Lodge, a Pasadena commune of sorts, known for its wild parties, dark occult rites, drug use, and bed-swapping couples.

As the successes of the Suicide Squad’s rockets mounted, and JPL and Aerojet rapidly expanded — and as rocket science in general grew in respectability — Parsons’ private life became an increasing liability to all those involved. He was sidelined, bought out. And things only seemed to crash and burn from there. Parsons’ close friend and fellow magician, L. Ron Hubbard (yes, that L. Ron Hubbard) allegedly ran off to Florida with Parsons’ girlfriend and money from his shares of Aerojet to start a yacht sales business. Parsons was disowned by his “magical father,” Crowley, who died soon after. He worked in the film industry doing pyrotechnics and dreamed of starting his own explosives company in Mexico. He was likely packing for a trip there when, in June 1952, an explosion in his home lab killed him.

Given Parson’s chemistry knowledge and his decades of handling volatiles, some suspected foul play, or suicide, or otherworldy forces. But as Pendle tells MAKE, “The simplest solution tends to be the best — and the simplest solution is that a can of fulminate of mercury slipped out of his hand during an experiment. Parsons had worked for so long and with such success with chemicals that he no longer saw them as being particularly hazardous.”

Parsons embodied the heart and soul of independent science. One of the reasons von Kármán invited young Jack and Ed into the hallowed halls of Caltech was that he saw in them the type of untarnished dreamers that make novel discoveries. Unfortunately, it was that same dogged determination, that same deep desire to stretch human horizons, that led Parsons down a darker, more serpentine path in his inner life.

But have history’s authors intentionally sought to sideline Jack Parsons? In the internet age, his marginalization is due partly to the sensational side of his life: a net search finds the few fragments about his rocketry buried amongst the occult, the Hollywood Babylon, the Scientological. Yet even official histories of rocketry, the space program, and World War II aviation barely mention him.

Aerojet, the company he co-founded, doesn’t mention him at all; the picture on their history web page is the famous cropped one. JPL’s site also has few references. Pendle claims that when JPL’s archivist, the late Dr. John Bluth, tried to gather material on the Suicide Squad, he discovered that most of their papers, drawings, and notes had been used as insulation, to plug up holes in leaky building walls.

Pendle neatly sums up why Parsons frequently is found under the rug of history:

Rocketry underwent fundamental change within Parsons’ lifetime, transformed from sci-fi fantasy to an integral part of the military-industrial complex (where it remained until recent private space endeavors). A lightness of spirit was lost in this transition; a certain sense of humor and individualistic attitude, which Parsons and the Suicide Squad encapsulated, all but disappeared. The space race, despite being built on the ultimate boy’s fantasy of exploring outer space, came to be treated as a curiously nationalistic form of science. And nothing could undermine JPL’s seriousness more (nor weaken its ability to attract investment) than to declare that its founder was a sci-fi-inspired occultist communist who had never been to university.

Perhaps it is those private space endeavors, and the resurging interest in the DIY ethos in general, that will rekindle interest in Jack Parsons, so that the next generation of rocket geeks will recognize his name alongside those of Goddard, Oberth, von Braun, Tsiolkovsky, and Rutan.

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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